Once It Was Fire: Introduction to a Straub-Huillet Retrospective (1982)

I’m sorry to say that the last complete retrospective in the U.S. devoted to Jean-Marie Straub and the late Danièle Huillet was held over thirty years ago, on November 2-14, 1982, at New York’s Public Theater. (An upcoming touring show is reportedly in the works, but I don’t yet know whether or not this will include a complete retrospective anywhere.) I curated the 1982 event, which also included a selection of films by others made by Jean-Marie and Danièle to play with their own. For the occasion, I also edited a 20-page, tabloid-sized catalogue, long out of print, and what follows are (1) the full program as planned and (2) my introduction. Regarding (1), I recall now that there was one last-minute addition, their recently completed short film En rachâchant (see second photograph below), as well as some last-minute omissions or substitutions that are noted in the text below. Regarding (2), I should emphasize that a lot has changed and developed over the past three decades, both in myself and in Straub-Huillet’s work –- in both cases, I’d like to think, for the better. — J.R.

The Cinema of Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet
November 2-14, 1982

Nov. 2: MACHORKA-MUFF (1963)

NICHT VERSÖHNT (NOT RECONCILED, 1965)

plus ANTONIO DAS MORTES (Glauber Rocha, 1969)

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Three Sequences from DEFINING MOMENTS IN MOVIES [WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER?, PISTOL OPERA, & THE WORLD]

Here are three of the 40-odd short pieces I wrote for Chris Fujiwara’s excellent, 800-page volume Defining Moments in Movies (London: Cassell, 2007). Each one of these entries devoted to “scenes” has something to do with imaginatively combining animation with live-action. — J.R.

***

1957 / Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? — Rock Hunter dances through his empty office at night to an offscreen chorus (“Mr. Successful, You’ve Got it Made”).

U.S. Director: Frank Tashlin. Cast: Tony Randall.

Why It’s Key: In a key satire of the 50s, a Hollywood dream overtly springs to life inside a Hollywood dream.

Madison Avenue adman Rockwell P. Hunter (Tony Randall) signs movie star Rita Marlowe (Jayne Mansfield) to endorse Stay-Put lipstick, thereby making his company a fortune and eventually turning him into first a first a vice president at the ad agency with a key to the executive washroom, then the new president. Before long, even though his alienated fiancée has broken off with him in disgust, he’s clearly “got it made” —- a phrase that he and this movie keep repeating so many times, in so many different ways, like a desperate mantra, that it begins to sound increasingly sinister. Perhaps the most pertinent gloss on this is offered to him by the company’s former president (John Williams), who has meanwhile happily left advertising for horticulture and offers his gloss as a kind of warning: “Success will fit you like a shroud.”

The climax of Frank Tashlin’s definitive satire of 50s America, aptly filmed in expansive CinemaScope, spells this out in glitzy neon.… Read more »

Orson Welles’ TOO MUCH JOHNSON is downloadable now, for free!

http://www.filmpreservation.org/preserved-films/screening-room/too-much-johnson-work-print

My only (minor) quarrel with Scott Simmon’s excellent accompanying essay is his speculation about the reason or reasons why the film wasn’t screened at the Connecticut stage preview. According to the late Richard Wilson, who worked on the editing of the film, the summer theater had an inadequate throw for film projection. (See This is Orson Welles, p. 344 — which also includes the erroneous information that the only copy of the work print was destroyed in a fire at Welles’ Madrid villa in 1970). [8/21/14]

TooMuchJohnson

too-much-johnson-1938

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Notes on a Conversation with Welles (1972)

The following notes appeared in the same issue of Film Comment (November–December 1972) as “The Voice and the Eye,” at the end of my regular column, titled “Paris Journal,” which typically dealt with several different topics. Though these notes largely replicate things said elsewhere by Welles, two details for me stand out as significant additions to the record: that Welles regarded his Don Quixote as nearly completed in 1972 -— which corresponds fairly closely to the conclusions of “Don Quixote: Orson Welles’s Secret” by Audrey Stainton (who worked “on and off” as Welles’s secretary in the late 1950s) in the Autumn 1988 Sight and Sound — and that he remained convinced that the deleted footage of Ambersons was destroyed by RKO (a belief I regretfully share, though legends continue to circulate about another copy of the longer cut that may survive somewhere in Brazil).

2014 footnote: The information that The Deep was “completed” by 1972 seems contradicted by the apparent fact that Jeanne Moreau never dubbed her part. -– J.R.

In the course of a conversation with Orson Welles about his Heart of  Darkness script, which is detailed elsewhere in this issue, I asked Welles about his more recent projects.… Read more »

The Pluck of BARRY LYNDON

From the March-April 1976 Film Comment. I’m somewhat irritated today by the hectoring tone of this, but I tend to think most of my arguments are sound — apart from my far-too-facile insistence that Barry Lyndon is a failure, which I would now dispute. — J.R.

So BARRY LYNDON is a failure. So what? How many “successes” have you seen lately that are half as interesting or accomplished, that are worth even ten minutes of thought after leaving them? By my own rough count, a smug little piece of engineering like a CLOCKWORK ORANGE was worth about five. I’m reminded of what Jonas Mekas wrote about ZAZIE several years ago: “The fact that the film is a failure means nothing. Didn’t God create a failure, too?”

Anyway, what most Anglo-American critics appear to mean by failure is that they were (a) bewildered and (b) bored by their bewilderment. To some extent, I was bewildered and befuddled too. So what? Who says we have to understand a film back to front before we can let ourselves like it? “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,/But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

London critics got to see BARRY LYNDON at least a couple of weeks before their New York counterparts, so the contrasts and comparisons that were drawn were somewhat different: while most of the former chastised Kubrick for his beautiful images before going on to rave about HARD TIMES (known over here as THE STREETFIGHTER) or A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE, the latter were usually more equitable in establishing that BARRY LYNDON and LUCKY LADY were both failures, leading the unwary to suspect that they might as well be equivalents.… Read more »

PLACING MOVIES, Part 1: The Critical Apparatus (Introduction)

This is the Introduction to the first section of my first collection, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism (University of California Press, 1993). I’ve taking the liberty of adding a few links to some of the pieces of mine mentioned here which appear on this web site. — J.R.

 

PlacingMovies

 

Introduction

 

Although this entire book is devoted to film criticism as a practice, this section emphasizes this fact by dealing with film criticism directly as a subject. This includes both specific examinations of the work of other critics and polemical forays into questions about how critics and reviewers operate on a day-to-day basis. A broader look at the same topic might question whether film criticism as it’s presently constituted is a worthy activity in the first place — if in fact the public would be better off without it.

 

 

I should add that it’s the institutional glibness of film criticism in both its academic and mainstream branches — above all in the United States, where it seems most widespread and least justifiable — that has led me on occasion to raise this latter question. Speaking as someone who set out to become a professional writer but not a professional film critic, I’ve never felt that movie reviewing was an especially exalted activity, but I didn’t start out with any contempt or disdain for the profession either.… Read more »

The Voice and the Eye: A Commentary on the Heart of Darkness script

From Film Comment, November-December 1972 and Discovering Orson Welles (California, 2007) — the latter of which includes the following introduction. My apologies for some occasional glitches in the formatting, which I haven’t managed to rectify. — J.R.

Preview of “FC cover”

The following article was inspired by my having been lent Welles’s first film script by the late, Cuban-born film critic Carlos Clarens while we were both living in Paris. This was supplemented eventually by my meeting with Welles, and initially by research in the library at that city’s American Center and correspondence with Richard Wilson, a longtime Welles associate who was probably unique among his close collaborators in his scholarly meticulousness (as evidenced in his suberb rebuttal to an article by Charles Higham about IT’S ALL TRUE, appropriately entitled “It’s Not Quite All True,” in the Autumn 1970 issue of Sight and Sound – an essay that lamentably had no sequels).
 

As a former graduate student at the State University of New York at Stony Brook in English and American Literature (1966-69) who had dropped out shortly before moving to Paris, I was still somewhat under the sway of that academic training when I wrote this piece, which partially accounts for its literary orientation.Read more »

Reunion

From the Chicago Reader (April 12, 1991). — J.R.

reunion

It’s a pity that Jerry Schatzberg’s most recent picture — and one of his very best — has had to wait two years for its Chicago premiere. Adapted by Harold Pinter from a novel by Fred Uhlman, and shot in ‘Scope by Bruno De Keyzer, this French-English-West German production is a story about a Jewish lawyer in New York (Jason Robards) who’s returning to Stuttgart, Germany, after a 55-year absence to discover what happened during the early 30s to his best friend (Samuel West) — an ambassador’s son who didn’t share the racism of his aristocratic family. Most of the story is told in flashback (Christien Anholt plays the hero as a youth), and much of what’s impressive about its unfolding is the meticulous re-creation of Germany during the rise of Nazism (the superb production design is by the great Alexandre Trauner, who appears in a cameo in a warehouse office), as well as a sensitive (and perhaps timely) depiction of how the gradual changes in national thinking were reflected in everyday life. It’s a story that’s been told before, but seldom with such feeling for detail and nuance; one has to adjust to the curious mix between English dialogue and street signs in German, but the performances — including those by Francoise Fabian, Maureen Kerwin, Barbara Jefford, and Bert Parnaby in small parts — are impeccable (1989).… Read more »

Ten More Key Moments

Here are ten more of the 40-odd short pieces I wrote for Chris Fujiwara’s excellent, 800-page volume Defining Moments in Movies (London: Cassell, 2007).  – J.R.

Scene

1995 / The Neon Bible – “It didn’t snow that year.”

U.K. (Academy/Channel Four). Director: Terence Davies.

Cast: Drake Bell, Jacob Tierney, Gena Rowlands.

Why It’s Key: It reveals the power of imagination in a flash.

Few moments in movies reveal the power of imagination more succinctly than the opening of Terence Davies’ CinemaScope adaptation of John Kennedy Toole’s first novel, written when the southern author was only 16. It opens with 15-year-old David (Jacob Tierney) alone on a train at night, the camera moving past him to the darkness glimpsed outside. Then David at ten (Drake Bell) is seen peering out a rain-streaked window in his rural home to the strains of “Perfidia”, circa 1948, while narrating offscreen, “People came to see us that Christmas. They were nas, those people —- they brought me things…”

A moment later, we cut to a diptych: on screen left, an empty porch topped by icicles framing an enchanted snowfall, as decorous as a neatly filled box by the surrealist artist Joseph Cornell. On screen right, young David is seated on the floor inside, now looking out the same window in profile, while narrating offscreen, “There was no snow —- no, not that year.” When the next shot shows us his aunt (Gena Rowlands) in full frame greeting him through the window, the icicles are still lining the top of the frame.… Read more »

Afterword to THE CRADLE WILL ROCK, a screenplay by Orson Welles

Published by Santa Teresa Press (in Santa Barbara) in 1994 (twenty years later, this book is still available on Amazon) and reprinted in Discovering Orson Welles in 2007, along with the following introductory comments:

Critic Dave Kehr once said to me that encountering The Cradle Will Rock after The Big Brass Ring was a bit like encountering The Magnificent Ambersons after Citizen Kane. I appreciate what he meant — especially when it comes to this script’s nostalgia and its sharp autocritique compared to the more narcissistic and irreverent surface of its predecessor. But I hasten to add that this script, unlike The Big Brass Ring, is more interesting for its autobiographical elements than for its literary qualities. Perhaps for the same reason, writing an afterword about it was more difficult.

On the subject of Tim Robbins’s Cradle Will Rock,I’d like to quote excerpts from an article of mine that appeared in the Chicago Reader on December 24, 1999:

For the past seven months, ever since Robbins’s movie premiered in Cannes, friends and associates who saw it there have been warning me that I, as an Orson Welles specialist, would despise it. Writer-director Robbins does make the character of Welles (Angus MacFadyen) a silly boozer and pretentious loudmouth without a serious bone in his body — something closer to Jack Buchanan’s loose parody of Welles in the 1953 MGM musical The Band Wagon than a historically responsible depiction of Welles in 1937.… Read more »

War Bonds [on COMING HOME, 1978 review]

From the San Diego Reader (June 15, 1978). Not one of my best reviews, and certainly not a favorite, but I’m reprinting it, after some hesitation, as part of the record, with only minor re-edits.  I came to write this through my acquaintance with Duncan Shepherd, the film critic for the San Diego Reader from 1972 until late 2010 -–  a protégé of Manny Farber who had followed him all the way from New York to southern California –- after I had been hired by Farber to return to the U.S. from London and take over his classes for two quarters in 1977 while he was on a Guggenheim fellowship, and then hadn’t been rehired there. Manny, as I recall, was mightily annoyed by this piece, and I can’t deny that some of our political arguments probably fueled the review, at least in part -– as well as some of the swagger in Farber’s prose, a regrettable influence on this occasion. (An afterthought: I was sharing a house with Raymond Durgnat around this time, and the “crazy mirror” metaphor in the final paragraph suggests to me now that he might have exerted some influence as well.) — J.R.

 coming_home

As a native of Alabama, I didn’t have to worry much about draft dodging in the late Sixties.… Read more »

Mikey and Nicky (essay for the DVD)

This was written in October 2003 for the DVD released in 2004 by Home Vision Entertainment, which I’m happy to report is still available. And DVD Beaver persuasively argues that this edition is far superior to the Region 2 PAL release on Odyssey Video. — J.R.

Mikey and Nicky

by Jonathan Rosenbaum

Thanks to an appointment book, I can pinpoint that the first time I saw Mikey and Nicky was on January 7th, 1977, at New York’s Little Carnegie. The experience was a shock. In contrast to A New Leaf (1971) and The Heartbreak Kid (1972) —- Elaine May’s two previous features, both slick (if caustic) Hollywood comedies —- this was a harsh gangster drama in drab urban locations, and, even stranger, a near-facsimile of John Cassavetes’s raw independent features, costarring Cassavetes himself as Nicky and one of his regulars, Peter Falk, as Mikey. The editing was full of continuity errors, the garrulous performances free-wheeling and seemingly full of improvisations (as I then wrongly assumed Cassavetes’ own features were). But the brutal force of an alternately nurtured and betrayed friendship between two small-time crooks over one long night in Philadelphia was so ferocious that it left me shaken as well as bewildered.Read more »

Bordwell on Dreyer (a book review)

From the November-December 1981 issue of Film Comment. I was gratified to learn recently from David Bordwell, via his own web site (as well as an email to me), that he’s eventually come around to agreeing with my major complaint about his book.

The photograph of Dreyer immediately below is by Jonas Mekas. — J.R.

The Films of Carl-Theodor Dreyer by David Bordwell. 251 pp., illustrations, index, University of California Press, $29.50

In relation to Roland Barthes’ distinction between readerly and writerly texts, David Bordwell — an academic marvel who organizes huge masses of material with an uncanny sense of what can or can’t be assimilated –- should be considered a master of the teacherly text. His ambitious textbook written with Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction (Addison-Wesley, 1979), has rightly been regarded as a landmark to many film teachers – a sort of Whole Systems Catalog of formal registers in film that, like Dudley Andrew’s The Major Film Theories, makes a good bit of relatively difficult material accessible to students. Almost alone among prominent American film academics. Bordwell has drawn a lot of sustenance from the Russian formalists and more contemporary critics such as Noël Burch to articulate a modernist position that, for better and for worse, has avoided most of the ideological debates that his predecessors have engaged in.… Read more »

Patti Smith: Dream of Life

I’d read enough about this documentary, made over 11 years by Steven Sebring, to know not to expect a concert film. What I was less prepared for was the paradoxical view of my favorite punk star that emerges, making her seem like the ultimate postmodernist heroine — the edgy outlaw that, to all appearances, has never been in even modest rebellion against any part of her family, and modulates from angry iconoclast to contented Detroit housewife and back again with scarcely a bump. (At one point she avows that her principal claim to being a taboo-breaker as a child-rearing launderer is that she doesn’t use bleach.) It seems fairly evident that she’s very much in control of her own image here, and that image manages to encompass a sense of a rock star’s glamor while suggesting that she’s never shampooed her hair even once in her life.

Maybe the source of my confusion is her unusual capacity to shift back and forth repeatedly between ultra-theatricality and mundanity, which made the only concert of hers I’ve ever attended, in London in the mid-70s, a little off-putting. One moment she’d be leading the audience like a Dionysian Joan of Arc; the next moment, she’d be sitting on the floor cross-legged, apparently oblivious to the same audience, while playing idly with her guitar as if it were a kitten rather than a musical instrument.… Read more »

Juha

From the Chicago Reader (January 1, 2000). — J.R.

JuhaWEB

When I heard that Aki Kaurismaki was making a silent black-and-white feature, I expected something arch and postmodernist. Yet in spite of a few flashes of mordant humor, some wonderfully spare sound effects, and a few minimalist lighting schemes that suggest 50s Hollywood, this 1999 film is a moving pastiche whose strength is its sincerity and authenticity. A fallen-woman story set in the present, featuring a farm couple and an evil playboy from the city who lures the wife away, it conveys the sort of purity and innocence associated with silent cinema storytelling, including a love of nature and animals, a taste for stark melodrama, and an emotional directness in the acting — evocative at various times of Griffith in the teens and Murnau in the 20s. Accompanied by a live orchestra at the Berlin film festival, the film is now furnished with a music track featuring the same score and musicians that’s essential to its power. No other film by Kaurismaki has affected me as much as this one, but if you don’t love silent movies it may come across as a pointless exercise. With subtitled Finnish intertitles. 76 min. (JR)

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